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Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Indeed, technology threatens to swallow us whole - or if not devour us, at least alter the way we function as humans. Evolution will take our devotion to the mechanical and the convenient to heart, and soon we will find ourselves changing. Legs that no longer need to walk will become weak and useless. Hands no longer needed for intricate work will mesh and merge. Organs malfunctioning from the lack of basic nutrition will be replaced by artificial engines - each designed to perfectly replicate the faulty item. Eventually, the rich will engage plastic surgeons in the technical enhancement of their beings. Body parts like breasts and butts will be adjustable, as will eye color, face shape and all other physical forms. Soon, biology and engineering will conjoin, becoming indistinguishable from each other. Cells will be circuits and blood will be replaced with liquid metal. We will become the vision that violates all that nature has spent eons perfecting. We will become just like the hero (?) in Shinya Tsukamoto's landmark film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. We will cease to have a soul.
A man with a metal fetish drives a piece of pipe into his leg. The pain transcends anything he has ever imagined. Screaming in a combination of ecstasy and agony, he runs out into the street, and directly into the path of an oncoming car. Badly injured, but not quite dead, he is picked up by the couple in the vehicle and taken to a remote location. There, his body is dumped, and the lovers are so excited by their near-death experience that they engage in sex.
Upon returning home, the driver sees a strange blemish on his face. It appears to be metal, but pops like a zit and oozes a nasty fluid. On his way to work, he comes across a young woman waiting for the train. She stumbles upon a smoldering pile of wires and metal. Touching it, she becomes possessed with the spirit of the injured fetishist. She chases the driver through the station, and finally attacks him in a bathroom. The driver suddenly sees himself changing. He is growing metal all over his body, and certain parts are changing, turning robotic and mechanized.
The driver's girlfriend tries to help him, with some rather lethal results. With the transformation almost complete, the driver heads out into the street. There he is met by the fetishist, who vows a kind of metaphysical revenge. They battle all over the city, ending up in a local abandoned factory. Eventually they merge, and team up to take over the world.
Though it may just seem like one big geek show gross out, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is actually a movie about revenge. It's about man's revenge against man, technology's revenge against humans, nature's revenge against technology and the neverending revenge between elements of karma and the primal forces of the universe. It's a sick, cyclical meditation on physicality, mixing imagery both derivative and disgusting. It plays tricks with cinematic convention, drops narrative in favor of nastiness, and always manages to make sense, even if it is in its own obtuse, offensive way. It's part comic book, part alien autopsy, and all visual violence, laced with enough wicked cinematic style to make other wannabe cyberpunks pale in comparison.
When it arrived in 1988 as another in a long line of 'video double-dares' - titles (usually imported and renamed) notorious amongst VHS connoisseurs for their generous grotesquery factors - people placed it somewhere between Lucio Fulci's previous title holder, Gates of Hell/City of the Living Dead and a shoddy Asian sideshow attraction. It became a must-see mission for fans of outsider shocks, and to the untrained eye, looked like bad live action anime gone gimpy. Yet somewhere in the middle of all this metal and mucus, blood and bile, is actually a film that says something about our growing need for technology, about our connection to industrialism, consumerism and materialism. That we couldn't see such sentiments 15 years ago is not surprising. Portability was a Walkman, or a pair of jogger's headphones. Today, we can carry our transistored lives - real and virtual - as we simultaneously live them.
As much as Darren Aronofsky's Pi references this film (some shots seem like direct lifts), Tetsuo is indebted to David Lynch's waking nightmare to procreation, Eraserhead. Indeed, one could look at all three films as kind of a trilogy, each one an individual take on the society of its time. Lynch's Henry Spencer is perhaps the last man left standing after the sexual revolution imploded, and Aronofsky's Max Cohen represents the information age gone insular and dangerous. In the case of Tetsuo, our hapless hero is a victim of burgeoning technology run amuck, uncontrolled and destructive. Henry certainly is the 70s as impotent engineer, and Max is late 90s nihilism channeled through motherboards. In this way, our main protagonist is the missing link, a man caught between Henry's biology and Max's science.
Each film is almost 10 years apart from the other (Eraserhead predates Tetsuo by 11 years) yet all three share a similar aesthetic: bleak black and white photography; like looking into the grainy visions of a certified psychotic; an overriding atmosphere of dread and despair; a minor milquetoast of a hero; an attempt to get at a bigger universal truth; directorial flare replacing budgetary limits. As the filmic timeline progresses, we see a greater reliance on narrative drive (Pi has more story than Tetsuo, which in turn has more than Eraserhead) and a quickening of pace. Lynch's lunacy is languid, while Aronofsky seems resolute in presenting five films worth of story and character in a single motion picture. Tsukamoto is somewhere in the middle. He wants rapid-fire frenzy, but there are nods to plotting and pace, a gradual build up of tension and tendencies just waiting for release.
As a work of future shock, Tetsuo is kind of hokey. It wants us to believe that technology will one day act like a disease, infecting us in irreversible and ugly ways. Such a sentiment seems unlikely, but it still makes for marvelous visualization. Science or speculative fiction rarely gets this down and dirty. Perhaps the better interpretation of Tetsuo is that man will one day make technology and artificiality his medicine. He will use it to solve all his problems and calm all his chaos. When there is no more turmoil to tame, man will use metal to satisfy his baser urges. Still, a lot of this is conjecture, since Tsukamoto is not out to make an open linear narrative per se. Instead, he is creating a manga with all the exposition removed. Tetsuo does play like a comic with only the action panels highlighted, or an action film with just the big bang scenes left intact. It takes several viewings to "get", and even then, the movie plays possum. It hides from you, intriguing with outlandish visuals, but keeping any real insight close to its metallic vest.
Tetsuo is not an easy film to watch. It is not a pleasant motion picture experience. Like the movement it mimics, Tetsuo is a punk assault, a direct gob in the eye of Japanese social stigmas and honor. The most 'enjoyable' sequence, if there is such a thing here, is the final battle between our 'hero' and the metal fetishist. Their street brawl, realized in quick cuts and stop motion animation, is breathtaking. So is the ending, which seems to make sense of everything that has come before while raising its own arcane questions. In between is lots of ooze: blood and other bodily fluids freely flowing. Tsukamoto relies heavily on the demon iconography of his culture (something we would see explode during the post-millennial Japo-horror craze) and taps directly into the Asian aversion to graphic sexuality. For as many boundaries as it pushes, Tetsuo is still rather tame, compared to Begotten/Nekromantic standards. Yet it is relentless in its vision, assaulting all the senses in an attempt to overload your own inner circuits.
As fascinating as it is as a cinematic curio, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a better calling card than actual entertainment. It represents a startling original approach, but it has a hard time actually resonating beyond its viewing. Because it is so extreme, so direct in its desire to dazzle and disgust, this movie itself actually gets lost. One could easily see Tsukamoto making a straightforward feature with an emphasis on both the message and the mayhem. Typical of the 'man in suit' sagas most closely associated with Japanese monster moviemaking, the two metal maniacs would square off on a miniature set, stomping on balsawood mock-ups of recognizable Tokyo landmarks as tiny explosions skirt their heels. In reality, this is the kind of cornpone Tsukamoto is looking to avoid. For him, the goofiness of the past needs to be replaced with the goriness of the present. The world is not an easily destructible realm replete with titanic creatures. It is a messy, dirty, vile locale where untold horrors could be happening in the flat next door.
That is why Tetsuo feels like the first real post-modern horror/sci-fi film. It reminds us of reality as it stretches the limits of such a sentiment. It presents recognizable symbols of our modern society and peppers them with the perversion we know is lying just beneath the surface. It's unrelenting and unforgettable, yet somehow still cold and sterile. As with any member of the geek show cinema genre, it is far more remembered for elements outside the main point (the huge, power drill penis for one) and yet, without those visual cues, the subtler ideas would be misplaced. Imagine Eraserhead without the baby, or Pi without the brain cues. Certain imagery is indelible, and Tetsuo has its far share of such visions. But it also tells us something about who we were in 1988 and where we were heading. Instead of being ahead of its time, Tetsuo is right on the mark. There are many Iron Men and Women racing around the rat maze of modern society, ears plugged into a non-stop stream of technological wonders. The day it decides to fight back, we are all in trouble.
Tartan releases Tetsuo: The Iron Man under its Asian Extreme label, promising a special edition treatment. From a purely visual side, this 1.33:1 full frame transfer looks very good. Old VHS copies of the film were filled with grain and low budget bungling. This new version looks crisp and clean, with nice monochrome contrasts and limited defects. We still get some scratches here and there, and a few of the scenes are poorly/over lit, but these are faults in the original elements, not the DVD presentation. Overall, this is probably the best Tetsuo has ever looked.
By far the best aspect of this new DVD release is the remastered soundtrack. Originally, Tetsuo suffered from horribly tinny audio, the result of limited financial means to remix the film's industrial din (anyone who wants to relive the experience can chose the included Dolby Digital Mono track). Thanks to this new version from Tartan, we are treated to a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound experience unlike any other. Imagine listening to early Nine Inch Nails as channeled through the speakers of a slaughterhouse, with the screams of human as well as animal suffering all around you. Now layer in machinery, the spastic spark of electricity, and the unending drone of civilization, and you've some idea of what Tsukamoto has up his sonic sleeve. Both the regular 5.1 and the DTS are excellent, each giving immersion and assault in equal measure. If you are a fan of this film, you definitely want this digital re-imagining of the movie's surreal score.
Sadly, in Tartan's mind, a special edition means a series of trailers (for other Tsukamoto films) and a few text screens of information. What this film deserves is a full-out Criterion-style treatment, complete with commentary, interviews, making-ofs and other contextual elements. Certainly if Tsukamoto is not available, scholars, critics or fans could speak up for the film. It would be interesting to hear differing interpretations of the storyline and visuals. Instead, we get the barebones basics, just enough to avoid an empty presentation.
As a freak show film, Tetsuo certainly deserves its reputation. It contains memorable sequences of sickening imagination, and unique takes on tired sci-fi/ action ideas. But there is more here than just metal fetishists and shape-shifting civil servants. As Tsukamoto tells it, man is on a collision course with his desire to be comfortable, to live life with as little hassle as possible. Of course, at a certain point, maximum manipulative density will be achieved, and the retaliation will begin. While it sounds like a lame b-movie concept, technology will fight back, hoping to destroy the master that constantly manipulates it. In essence, the war has already begun. We can't imagine our daily existence without those conveniences. We have made science so integral to our life (in a kind of perverse self-fulfilling prophecy) that the slightest interruption in the service and we are angry and subservient.
For a long time, we feared nature's revenge for the raping of its resources. Perhaps we've been focused on the wrong foe. We've got the entire planet panting under our thumb. But in the realm of the machine, the Messiah has yet to come. And when it does, don't be surprised if it looks a lot like Tetsuo. This movie has an amazing ability with its powers of prescience. It is also a cinematic spectacle well worth checking out...before it's too late.
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